The Five Pillars of Well-Being #4: Meaning


Posted on : February 5, 2013

Martin Seligman, author of, Flourish and co-founder of positive psychology, defines the fourth pillar of well-being, meaning,  as ‘using your strengths and talents to belong and to serve something that is larger than yourself’.  What is “meaningful” can be very different between two people; it may mean volunteering for animal rights, raising a healthy child, building a lasting structure, or being there when someone you love needs help.

The weird thing about meaning, however, is that even though it is a central pillar of well-being, it can often come at a cost to your happiness. For example, studies comparing parents and non-parents show that having children greatly reduces happiness because of the self-sacrifice it requires (as anyone who has supervised math homework instead of watching Breaking Bad can attest…).  Having a career where you care about the outcome and want to make a difference can be stressful and frustrating when it doesn’t work the way you hope.  Volunteering takes away from leisure activities, and other fun and engaging uses of your time.

So why do we do it?  Many of you probably intuitively feel the benefits of finding and claiming a personal mission, which can give you a powerful sense of direction in your life and can bring meaning to much of what you do.    And the research has shown that having a life purpose increases your overall well-being and life satisfaction, enhances your resilience and self-esteem, and improves your mental and physical health.

How to do it

Some people are born knowing what they were meant to do, but what if that’s not you?  Here are several ways you can start tapping into what has meaning for you.

1)  Write a personal mission statement.  One of the most powerful ways to find meaning in your life is to actively define your personal mission or purpose.  One of my favorite exercises for this is to envision traveling into the future and having a conversation with yourself on your 80th birthday.  You get to ask ask your future-self anything you want.   Here are some good starter questions:  What is it you most remember about your life?  What were the most important things you did?  The most meaningful?  What were your greatest achievements?

When you finish the visit and come back to the present, write down as much of the conversation as you can remember.  Consolidate those ideas into a personal mission statement, that describes what you are here for.  And then take a look at your life right now.  Are these the things you are doing and prioritizing today?

2)  Journal about meaning.  If tackling a personal mission statement sounds too vast an undertaking, you can start with a much simpler journaling exercise.  You simply write about one meaningful moment you experience each day.  For 21 days, do this practice for a couple minutes and include as much detail as you can remember.   Review your entries after a couple weeks and find how your different “meaning moments” link together into themes.  If this one sounds of interest to you, you can read much more about this on my blog post, Happiness Habit #5:  “Dear Diary…”:  Journaling for Meaning .

3)  Find meaning in your stress.  We only feel stress when there is something we care about on the line.  So next time you notice you are stressed, check in with the reason behind that stress.   You might have to go a few levels deep.  For example:  if your stressor is unopened emails in your inbox, you might feel stress because you really want to get back to those clients, you want to get back to those clients so you can have a thriving business, you want to have a thriving business so you can support your family, so that you can have a good family life.  At some point your brain should find an event or reason which justifies the stress that your brain has just given you.

Your task is to find what is meaningful in YOUR life.  What matters is that you see yourself making a positive difference towards creating the world you want to live in.

My experience

Finding meaning in my life drove many of my decisions over the last 6 years.  For me, working with a coach helped me sort out my values and see that the high-prestige, high-money career I’d built wasn’t providing meaning in my life.

When I became a happiness coach, I thought this meaning would come of its own accord.  That by doing something that I saw as important, I’d automatically feel the goodness of it.   But that was not the case for me.  When I’m not consciously looking for that meaning, I simply get caught up in my never-ending to-do list.  It’s an “Okay, that’s done.  What’s next?” mentality.  Reflecting on the meaning of what I’m doing helps me stay grounded.  After a good run with work – an hour drafting a blog post, for example — I deliberately spend several minutes appreciating that I’m doing something to make the world a better place.  This exercise gives me a few minutes to slow down each day and connect my actions with why I’m doing the things I do.

Take home message

If you know what brings meaning to your life, go out and do it.  It’s a blessing.  And be sure to regularly check in with how your actions are furthering that mission.  And if you’re still looking for your Special Purpose J (ahh…  Steve Martin), choose one of the tools described above to discover what brings you meaning.    It doesn’t have to be what you do every day.  It doesn’t have to be your career.  It doesn’t even have to be a big deal.  But there’s something that makes you feel like your life has purpose and that you are part of something bigger than yourself.  What is it?

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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